The brand is shifting from Jenna Lyons’ fashion forwardness to Somsack Sikhounmuong’s minimal looks
It’s time for a new crew to take over J. Crew.
This week, this clothing company said that Jenna Lyons, its creative director and president, was stepping down. The ankle-baring, thick spectacles-wearing Lyons quickly became the face of the brand, though she worked for a mass market label that typically hides designers behind the scenes. She appeared in magazine spreads and even starred in HBO’s “Girls,” as J. Crew tripled sales in the decade from 2002. It even became a label of choice for the likes of Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton.
But the designer also presided over J. Crew’s recent downfall. The company is plagued with debt and sales dropped 8.2% in 2015 and by another 6.7% last year. Stepping into her flats is the relatively unknown Somsack Sikhounmuong, who oversaw women’s designs and led the resurgence of Madewell, J. Crew’s successful spinoff. Unlike Lyons, who had a close relationship with chief executive Mickey Drexler, Sikhounmuong won’t have oversight over marketing and will reportedly rely more on his design team.
Observers familiar with Sikhounmuong’s work say his appointment likely means two big changes. For one, J. Crew is likely to shed Lyons’ adventurousness—think sequin joggers with cobalt pumps—and focus entirely on its core preppy aesthetic. Under Sikhounmuong, Madewell became known for quality denim and a pared down, so-called “tom boy” look. “It is safe but doesn’t make me think highly of ingenuity and forwardness,” says Sara DiMedio, a New York stylist who has dressed Julianne Moore and Jennifer Connelly.
That said, Sikhounmuong jives with how young people dress today. “There may have been a cultural moment where people paid a lot of attention to Jenna Lyons,” says Anya Kurennaya, a fashion instructor at Parsons School of Design. But shifting cultural mores have changed dress codes. “If you work at a startup or freelance, you wear clothes from Everlane or Madewell to get through the day,” she says.
Like Lyons, Sikhounmuong has been at J. Crew for a long time. A native of Thailand who grew up in Canada, he started out at Diane von Furstenberg and then designed for J. Crew before moving to Madewell.
Still, the appointment of a non-bold faced name doesn’t mean that J. Crew is abandoning the pop culture zeitgeist entirely. Kurennaya thinks that the label will take a leaf out of Alexander McQueen’s book. The late designer’s label replaced him with assistant Sarah Burton, who dresses public figures like Middleton that occupy the spotlight in her stead.
“You don’t want Rihanna to compete with your star designer,” she says. “The window of time where a celebrity is influential is getting shorter, so having a relative unknown frees brands up to create celebrity associations” as needed.
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